Do you yearn to feel your truck lunge forward under moderate throttle, the hood heaving up before you? Do you ache for that gentle linear pre-runner sway into every corner? Does your current rig sport a sticker with Calvin maliciously relieving himself on a Blue Oval? If so, Dealer Services International’s Tundra Pro Runner may be the truck for you.
The Raptor is said to have no real peers. And while that is strictly true, this Toyota makes a compelling argument to look hither. But it’s not the truck’s canyon-absorbing wheel travel, miraculous hydraulic bump stops, or bad-ass 18-inch black aluminum wheels in 35-inch rubber that make this Tundra exceptional. What makes this a viable Raptor alternative is that you can buy one right off a Toyota showroom floor today. No lapse in warranty coverage, no payload penalty, and no need to max out your credit card for the modifications.
This is not a product comparison, but juxtaposing these two products is unavoidable. The Pro Runner was bench-marked against the wildly popular Ford and engineered for the same mission: pounding across the desert at freeway speeds. Just like the Ford, this Toyota meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS 126), which means the electronic stability control system remains OEM compliant. On the flip-side, that means without a terrain management system like the Raptor has, the Tundra may lack some of the at-limit off-road capabilities exhibited by the Ford.
What about the TRD Pro? Sure, the TRD Pro offers a meaningful 10.5 inches of wheel travel in front and 9.5 out back, versus 11.2 and 12.1 inches for the Raptor. But the Pro Runner goes several steps further with a 4-inch Pro Comp lift including new cast upper and lower control arms, internal bypass coilovers at the front, and reservoir shocks at the rear. Along with modified fenders all around, the package delivers a well proportioned rig with 14 inches of wheel travel, well within the range of a Sportsman Class race truck. That all sounds great, but aside from the Ensenada-Swing, how does the Pro Runner perform?
The 85,000-acre Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area straddles the San Diego/Imperial County line and is one of Southern California’s premier off-road destinations. On weekends and holidays, tens of thousands of off-road enthusiasts gather there. But on one Wednesday in May, it was an empty playground. No need to watch for fast-moving flags bobbing through the desert.
Testing began in the broad San Felipe Wash. Its 100- to 200-foot wide sand-blown washboard with occasional sets of whoop-dee-doos and encroaching dunes were an invitation to get the Pro Runner up to speed. Accelerating through 30 miles per hour makes for a bumpy ride. Arriving at 40 mph, about where a stock full-size truck would generate enough head-toss to eject its driver, the Pro Runner begins to smooth out. At 50, it’s composed. And at 60 the Pro Runner is in its serene, exhilarating element as it cruises flat, devouring 3-foot sand banks and laughing at 2-foot whoop-dee-doos.
It’s a blast through the long straights. The extra 5 inches of track along with its capable 381 horsepower V8 give this rig a powerful, planted feel. The hydraulic steering is sensitive, requiring more input than would be ideal, but it dealt remarkably well with a testing regime for which it was not originally designed. One does however need to match forward speed with the span between bumps to find the right frequency. When the truck gets out of sync, generally due to too much speed, the hydraulic bump stops step in to prove their eye-opening capabilities. They provide 2 inches of progressive deceleration at the height of suspension compression, all but eliminating impact-energy transmission to the frame. In other words, that teeth-rattling, frame-risking experience of finding the limit of suspension travel in just about any other truck, Raptor included, is not present here.
The long, wide curves in the wash passed without drama, which was disappointing. In spite of healthy throttle input, the tires refused to rotate at the requested velocity and the back-end remained right behind the front. And just to add distraction to the mix, the ABS and Traction Control lights lit up the dash like a Christmas tree. Alas, operator error was to blame. One must hold down that VSC button for at least three seconds to disable 75 percent of the traction and stability control. Failing to do so allows the truck’s yaw sensor to intervene, cutting the throttle and applying braking to the inside wheel. Oversteer is thus eliminated, as are both forward and lateral progress. In this environment, failing to employ the VSC button properly turns the promise of a maniacal Six Flags roller coaster into a kiddie teacup ride. The Pro Runner may lack the drive modes offered by the Raptor, but with the VSC properly managed, this rig enjoys getting sideways. And when its full performance envelope is opened up, which is perhaps 9/10ths that of a Raptor in the open desert, it has about as much go as any non-SCORE race driver will be capable of extracting. If that is not enough, there may be a 40 amp fuse you can pull to disable the electronic nannies.
The Pro Runner is not a one trick pony. It ran more than 40 miles of high-speed washes and baked desert with aplomb, its raison d’etre. But it also tackled numerous technical obstacles on the Freedom and Pumpkin Patch Trails where its clearance, ability to keep all four patches of rubber on the ground, and aggressive 35-inch Pro Comp tires served it well. This rig does not have traditional running boards. But given the lengths the development team — which includes former Toyota TRD Design Engineering Manager Ted Moncure — went to their omission was not a cost cutting measure. Rather its creators understand that cab access does not trump break-over angle, so they offer the Pro Runner either without running boards or with automatic retracting side-steps. This 146-inch wheelbase Toyota is long. Nonetheless, it took off-camber, steep uphill, and abrupt downhill bumper-grazing approaches and departures with ease. Four-wheel drive would not have been required for any of these low-speed shenanigans were it not for the fact that this was a you break it, you bought it affair.
Dealer Services International (DSI) offers a range of off-road performance packages for Ford, GM, Jeep, Ram, and Toyota trucks, all sold exclusively through new car dealers. According to DSI director Dan Ciganovich, the company’s expanding dealer network moves 1,200 of its modified trucks each month. Its Toyota range includes packages for Tacoma, Tundra, and 4Runner. There are now hundreds of Toyota stores across the U.S. and Canada offering DSI products.
I sat down with Sales Managers Michael Boone and Scott Messier from Toyota Carlsbad, which has been selling about 60 DSI modified rigs annually for the last decade. Michael and Scott confirmed what Honolulu Ford told me a couple of months ago about DSI customers. These modified rigs are purchased overwhelmingly by men, 35-55 years old. At least 70 percent finance their purchase and they rarely arrive planning to buy one of these rigs. Michael and Scott went on to say, “Over more than ten years selling these trucks, we have never seen a rig come back with a mechanical problem related to DSI’s upgrades. And when a customer is dissatisfied [fuel economy is the most common complaint] DSI jumps right in to help, even contacting customers directly. Their service is incredible.”
Dealers establish their own markup on DSI packages. The Pro Runner, not including the wrap on our tester, adds $19,950 to a Tundra MSRP at Toyota Carlsbad. Thus a 2016 CrewMax Pro Runner with a 5.7-liter V8 will set you back between $60,000 and $70,000, depending on how it is optioned. Pricing for the 2017 Raptor has yet to be released, but will likely maintain Ford’s $5,000 to $10,000 pricing advantage. It is a modest premium for a truck that does not compromise on quality, warranty, or load capacity but will be one of a 1,000 versus one of more than 15,000.
In exchange for its healthy passenger and cargo volumes, as well as a track widened nearly half a foot, the Pro Runner will be compromised in wooded terrain and other tight spaces where compact trucks, SUVs, and Wranglers reign supreme. But those rigs cannot offer the boundless delight associated with bringing the back-end sideways through an arroyo seco at 60 miles per hour. The Pro Runner is not for everyone, but automotive individualism is part of our cultural fabric, and standing out is exactly the point.
Disclosure: Dealer Services International provided the vehicle and insurance for the purpose of this review. Seth paid out the nose for fuel.
This story first appeared on TheTruckAboutCars.com.